A feature on how Welsh Premier League clubs could start to approach European football.
Three clubs from the Welsh Premier League suffered 3-0 defeats on Thursday night and all exited the UEFA Europa League at the first hurdle. There was no disgrace in the disappointment, and Welsh interest in Europe remains via The New Saints as their UEFA Champions League continues in Croatia this week. But with all three Europa League entrants again seeing their respective European campaigns come to an end before the end of July, there should be serious concern about how clubs approach these fixtures in the future.
European football is the ultimate prize for competing in the Welsh Premier League. The financial reward for qualification dwarfs any domestic prize money, and the multi-zero carrot is the incentive that encourages club owners to spend over and above to compete at the top of the table. However, there are two aspects to European football for Welsh Premier League clubs. There’s qualification, and then there’s the actual competition. Achieving the first is celebrated far more than the second, and while early exits remain the norm, the chance of progressing falls further away.
FULLTIME: Vaduz 3, Bala Town 0
— Bala Town F.C. (@BalaTownFC) July 6, 2017
But it can happen, and in recent reasons Prestatyn Town, Connah’s Quay Nomads and Newtown have all progressed through the opening round of the Europa League, while The New Saints have eased their way through to the second stage of the Champions League qualifiers in each of the last three seasons. However, each of these Europa League results were considered shocks, and were headlined by the other teams losing as opposed to the Welsh clubs winning. Sadly, a frustrating couple of weeks has now seen the league take two steps back this summer.
The financial prize of qualifying for Europe plays a significant part in each clubs entire business operation. If clubs can progress through the opening round, the rewards are multiplied, and as such there is a real incentive to prepare properly and compete once their place has been confirmed. However, while European football is a pre-season interruption, the limited time between the draw and the first round of games does make preparation difficult. Clubs work hard with what they have, and it is encouraging that more and more quality pre-European friendlies are being organised.
— Connah's Quay Nomads (@the_nomads) June 29, 2017
But visits to Ireland ahead of a European tie do not come cheap, and ensuring that each club has the best possible preparation does take a slice out of the overall financial reward. The concern now is that clubs may start to limit their spending to maximise their qualification prize, especially when the outcome of the opening round tie remains the same. In order for our clubs to have the best possible chance to consistently progress through at least one round it requires a significant investment, ranging from new additions to the playing squad to high-profile friendlies.
And the problem with that is that it does not guarantee progress, but does guarantee that their prize fund for qualification will be reduced. It is concerning that it may now only be a matter of time before clubs start regressing on their preparation for European football, and maximise their profit from qualification rather than spend heavily at the chance to earn more. By comparison, that is the model that most clubs follow to qualify for Europe in the first place, but as prize money for qualification alone increases, it is a worry that actually competing on the European stage will move down list of priorities when it comes to investing their rewards.
— Connah's Quay Nomads (@the_nomads) July 6, 2017
Watching Bala Town, Bangor City and Connah’s Quay Nomads compete in the Europa League this summer has been encouraging despite the disappointment of their results. The days of heavy defeats appear to have been consigned to history, and there were fine margins that could have resulted in different outcomes for all three clubs. Welsh Premier League teams have to be at their very best to have any chance of progressing in Europe, and even then still need that little bit of a luck. There are no easy games and the seeding process ensures that our clubs are a long way off being favourites, but it is imperative for the profile of the league that our clubs continue to compete to the very best of their ability.
Connah’s Quay Nomads achieved an incredible result to defeat HJK Helsinki in their opening match, but the side from the Finnish capital responded in the return leg having had a brief scare. Bala Town were left frustrated in defeat against FC Vaduz, but the conditions in Liechtenstein for the return fixture added another element that worked against them. Bangor City put in a credible performance against Danish outfit Lyngby away from home, but lapses in concentration cost them dearly at Nantporth a week later.
— Bangor City FC (@bangorcityfc) July 6, 2017
And the performances, and the margins, show that clubs cannot afford to give up on competing in Europe. Preparation is key, but also costly, and it is difficult to see clubs continuing to spend large chunks of their qualification prize investing on a European tie when the most likely outcome is defeat. There is no quick fix to the problem, and it may be that significant investment and assistance from the Football Association of Wales is required for our clubs to consistently make the right impression on the European stage.
All three clubs can now focus on domestic matters, and they all have a long and hard season ahead of them. From the outset, the target for each club will be European football, for that is where the financial rewards that justify the investment are. However, it is how clubs decide to approach their next European campaign that is of particular interest. Can clubs continue to justify spending chunks of their increasing qualification prize money preparing for a European tie when history suggests the outcome is likely to be disappointing? The Welsh Premier League may have a whole new challenge ahead in convincing clubs that they should.